Sen. Barack Obama, vying to become the nation's first black president, has won the South Carolina primary today, boosted by a record turnout of African-American voters.
Obama overwhelmingly beat Sen. Hillary Clinton with 55 percent support to her 27 percent, and former Sen. John Edwards, trailing with 18 percent support, with almost all preccints reporting.
"Tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina," Obama said to supporters tonight.
"We have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans we've seen in a long, long time," Obama told supporters, who cheered "Yes we can!"
In a direct swipe at Clinton's campaign, Obama said, "There are real differences between the candidates. We are looking for more than just a change of party in the White House," he said.
"We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington ... and right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face," Obama said.
Clinton left South Carolina tonight for Nashville, Tenn., where she sought to minimize her loss and emphasize the upcoming Super-Duper Tuesday votes Feb. 5.
"I want to congratulate Sen. Obama tonight," Clinton told supporters. "Now the eyes of the country turn to Tennessee and the other states that will be voting Feb.5 and of course the state of Florida that will be voting Tuesday."
Yet to win any primary contest thus far, John Edwards lost again tonight, another crushing blow to the former senator, who was born in South Carolina and won the state in 2004.
Congratulating Obama and Clinton tonight, Edwards told supporters, "Our campaign from the very beginning has been about one central thing, and that is to give voice to millions of Americans who have absolutely no voice," Edwards said.
African-American Voters Boost Obama
This is the second win in the nomination battle for Obama, who won the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, but this is his first win in a state with a sizable African-American population.
Women and African-Americans, courted heavily by the candidates, turned out in very large numbers to vote in what became a bitter Democratic primary marked by rhetoric about race and gender.
Exit poll results indicate 55 percent of Democratic primary voters this year were black -- the highest turnout among African-Americans in any Democratic presidential primary for which data is available, reports ABC News' Gary Langer. Women accounted for six in 10 voters, similar to their 57 percent turnout rate in 2004.
Obama won the support of 78 percent of black voters, compared with 19 percent for Hillary Clinton and just two percent for John Edwards. Whites, meanwhile, divided more closely among the three candidates, though Obama notably failed to attract more than a quarter of their votes, reports Langer. Clinton and Edwards were even among whites, with Clinton winning white women, Edwards, white men.
Clinton started out strong in the state, but began to trail Obama in December. In recent weeks her campaign has tried to lower expectations, positioning her as the underdog in the race, and largely leaving her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign for her in the Palmetto State.
'Jesse Jackson Won South Carolina'
Even before Obama's victory, the Clinton campaign was already spinning the results, discounting the notion of an Obama victory, reports ABC News' David Wright.
"Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in 84 and '88," former President Bill Clinton told reporters outside a polling station in Columbia Saturday. "Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."
Wright reports Clinton rejected any suggestion he or his wife were guilty of race-baiting in South Carolina.
"Man, you've never been in many campaigns if you think this was ugly," Bill Clinton said. "This was a cakewalk."
But in a campaign dominated by talk of race, South Carolinians went into the polls with the economy on their minds; just over half called it the most important issue in their vote. South Carolina has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the nation, and has lost more than 90,000 manufacturing jobs over the last decade.
Obama: Media Focused 'Maniacally' on Race
Early on, the Obama campaign sought out African-Americans, employing a large staff in the state and organizing in churches, beauty parlors and barber shops. The Clinton campaign, too, fought hard for black women voters, who tend to turn out reliably at the polls.
But Obama complained the media's focus on race has been excessive.
"The press has been very focused, almost maniacally, on the issue of race here in South Carolina," Obama told ABC News' Kate Snow on Saturday's "Good Morning America Weekend" edition. "But as we move forward after this contest, I'm very confident that we are going to continue to build the kind of coalitions that we've been seeing all across the country."
The junior senator from Illinois dismissed the notion he has been marginalized, in the words of Associated Press writer Ron Fournier, as "the black candidate, by the Clinton machine."
"I think it'd be hard to argue that I have been marginalized, when I won Iowa, which was 94 percent white. We were almost tied in New Hampshire, a state that has an all-white population. And in Nevada, I was able to win, actually, the biggest votes, uh, margins, in those northern areas that are predominantly white, rural, conservative areas," Obama said.
Former President Clinton made headlines this week when he chastized CNN reporter Jessica Yellin for challenging him about comments he made about race and gender.
Clinton Camp Plays Expectations Game
Campaigning Saturday morning in Columbia with her daughter, Chelsea, Hillary Clinton popped into a Shoney's restaurant and urged people to vote.
Sitting down beside an 8-year-old boy named Messiah, who was playing a video game, Clinton leaned in and said, "So this guy, what's he doing?" reports ABC News' Eloise Harper.
Looking at the game, he said, "Beatin' up the evil people." Clinton paused and said, "Can I have him come with me?"
Nearby, Bill Clinton ate grits and eggs with his wife's supporters at Bert's Grill and Diner, and visited a voting station down the road, reports ABC News' Sarah Amos.
Race Shifts to Florida
Behind the scenes, Clinton's campaign sent out a memo to reporters that tried to minimize the impact of the South Carolina contest.
"Regardless of today's outcome, the race quickly shifts to Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Democrats turn out to vote Tuesday," wrote Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson.
In a sign of how bad the blood is between the two campaigns, Obama's spokesman Bill Burton quickly sent a memo of his own.
"It should not be surprising given recent events that the Clinton campaign would in one breath say the election is about winning delegates and then tout their success in states that don't award any delegates in the next breath," Burton wrote.
That type of back-and-forth bickering between the Obama and Clinton campaigns allowed Edwards, who had moved up slightly in the polls in recent weeks, to argue he was the only "grown-up" in the race, running ads showing his rivals attacking one another at Monday night's debate.
"Vote for somebody who's actually focused on the problems that you're faced with, from jobs to health care to ending the war in Iraq, as opposed to two candidates who are spending all their time and energy tearing each other down. I'm about building South Carolina up, not about tearing people down, not about tearing politicians down," Edwards said Saturday, campaigning in Charleston.
The loss in his home state may have driven a stake through the former senator's presidential chances, but Edwards told ABC News' David Muir Friday he's going to continue to fight through Feb. 5.
Edwards advisers reportedly believe he could play kingmaker if his two rivals end up short on delegates.
On primary day the Clinton campaign launched a series of anti-Edwards robotic calls in South Carolina, reminding voters that Edwards once worked for a hedge fund that, the call stated, has been "profiting" from subprime lending and home foreclosures.
"You should also know that John Edwards made nearly a half a million dollars working for a Wall Street investment fund," the Clinton campaign call said, "A fund that's been profiting on foreclosing on the homes of families, including 100 homes right here in South Carolina."
In a race that has increasingly become a delegate war leading up to the Super-Duper Feb.5 primaries and caucuses, Obama won an estimated 25 delegates tonight, Clinton won an estimated 12 and John Edwards received 8 delegates.
Obama's campaign received another boost this weekend with the endorsement of Caroline Kennedy, the last surviving member of President John F. Kennedy's immediate family.
"Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president," Caroline Kennedy writes in a New York Times op-ed Sunday. "This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama."
Arguing a "new wind" is at his back, Obama heads to Georgia and Alabama, states his campaign believes he can win, reports ABC News' Sunlen Miller.
The victory tonight gives Obama some much needed momentum before Tuesday's Florida primary and before voters in more than 20 states have their say Feb. 5.
ABC News' Gary Langer, Peyton Craighill, Dick Sheffield, Kate Snow, David Muir, David Wright, Eloise Harper, Sarah Amos, Sunlen Miller, Raelyn Johnson and Karen Travers contributed reporting.